Don Burke is a horticulturalist, tree surgeon, TAFE and guest university lecturer and founding member of Year of the Tree, Greening Australia and Sustainable Development Australia. Focus talks to Don about his new radio show The Lazy Gardener on local radio 531 and FM 93.5.
> Congratulations on your new radio program. What has the transition been like back behind the microphone, given that your career started in radio before moving across to TV?
Oh … I love radio. It is a lot of fun, and I always preferred radio to TV. But in the old days, there were situations back then that moved me from the radio and into TV.
> Tell us about the concept behind the program the ‘Lazy Gardener’?
I suppose humanity is the big thing. Ultimately, I have always had the belief that the important things about gardens are not soil, rocks and plants – it’s actually people. So I suppose it is about giving them good information … information that is accurate in terms of their gardening problems. We do a little on pets and the environment and so on, so there is a range of bits and pieces, but it is all about the people.
I do the show by myself.
> Can people call into the show?
Yes, we have a standard phone number across all states of Australia: 13 13 32, and when they ring the toll free number we are more than happy to try and help them with whatever problems or questions they ask.
> Back to your TV career with Burke’s Backyard. Did you ever think it would be as big as it was? And successful for so long?
I was certain it would be! I was a humble nursery man and loved to serve my customers and work in the shop. My customers would come to me for years and tell me that the stuff in the media was terrible and boring and didn’t cover the subjects that they wanted to hear about.
So I get on listening to them, and I realised there was a big need for someone to do what they refer to now as a ‘lifestyle program’. People don’t really have ‘gardens’ – they have backyards or whatever, with kids, dogs, cats, pools and plants and so on.
It was putting all that together that would clearly make a sensible show. When I put all the bits together that people had told me, I realised it was a brilliant idea to do a show … not that they ever thought I would do the show, but the public told me what they wanted. I think when you humbly serve the public and give them what they tell you they want, you can have a long term business.
> Do you miss the TV? Or will it be all radio now?
I would love to be back on TV, but the sort of stuff I did, which was firing from the hip without scripts, was very different. Basically, Burkes Backyard used fairly daggy people – we were the first show to not use young women in prime time television; we brought in the older women to relate to the public. These days they don’t want that; they want young, pretty people who read from auto-cues.
> Since you have been involved in gardening over the past two decades, how do you think the mindsets of the humble ‘at home’ gardeners and green thumbs have changed?
A lot of things have changed – people themselves included. It would be lovely for my ego to claim we changed the world, but I think the world changed us. We recongised the changes that were coming and the big environmental changes etc.
People were becoming more environmentally aware and wanted things that would help them make a difference – and I suppose that we let people down a bit in that area, ‘cause a lot of what is preached is all ‘greenwash’, and we would never be part of it.
We genuinely care about the environment and would not get involved in the nonsense. There is no way I would ever back those claims that supermarket bags are bad for the environment – it is simply not true. There is no evidence world wide that supermarket bags are such a problem; sure, there may be a few that blow round the tips in China, but basically it is just lies.
There are so many Green groups that tell these stories just to grow their groups and be powerful and get money, and we won’t be part of that. So in some sense, I guess we let people down on that part.
The other big thing that we picked up on is the fact that a lot more people now are growing much more food in their own homes. They want healthier food free from chemicals etc. They want real organic products.
That is very much a new trend, as for a long, long time people stopped growing veges at home. That is one area I might take a little credit for. I think the reason people stopped growing veges at home was because you had to use harsh chemicals and they were not equipped with the right information on how to use them, and the risk to your long term health was not that great.
As an example, Allan Seale – who was the big national guru of gardening before I was around – I remember once asking him why he had no fingernails (I couldn’t help myself). He said it was from using Maldison; all his fingernails fell out and so did his hair, but some of his hair grew back (his fingernails didn’t!) That was the era where a lot of chemicals were involved in growing veges at home.
So what I did, as I had the privilege of working in television, was I went to the Government – specifically to Simon Crean when he was Minister for Primary Industries and said, “Look, there is no national body that controls all of your agricultural and veterinary chemicals. We are poisoning ourselves and the environment, and we need to fix that.”
To give him his credit, he was fantastic; we worked together, I suppose, but he did a lot of key work to set up a group in Canberra which is now called Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (that now controls all these things). The first thing he did was put me on the Board (where I didn’t want to be. My role is the phantom raspberry blower … I blow a raspberry and roll out (laughs)).
We removed a lot of the nasty chemicals such as organochloride, the DDT family. They were stored in body fats, and I think there was a study done in Perth were they found that all the women were producing breast milk so contaminated by organochlorines it was unsafe to drink … as determined by the World Health Organisation.
So we set about reducing a lot of those chemicals and making Australia safer. But also in the end, we set about changing the varieties of veges that were around. We were pointing out things like how modern tomatoes didn’t really taste like tomatoes, and that got a lot of people together in a movement where we got vastly better varieties – often heritage varieties of different veges that were chemical free. This just fitted perfectly with what people wanted.
> What else are you passionate about other than gardens and the environment?
Plants and animals drive my life. I live on an indigenous block of land, which has lots of animals on it, and we think we may hold the record in Australia for the most number of native birds on one block of land (which is about 211).
And I keep lots of animals myself. I breed exhibition budgerigars and keep lots of different varieties of fish. We have wildlife all over this property and even have snakes in the roof and water dragons that come into our ponds.
It was a dream I had, and that’s pretty much become my whole life. I guess it really is all about the backyard!
> Thanks Don.
Don Burke’s radio show The Lazy Gardener can be heard from 6am on Radio 531/FM 93.5.
The Lazy Gardener, Don Burke hosts the perfect weekend breakfast format, with a mix of gardening information complete with latest techniques, road testing pets, fun and loads of giveaways.
Don will be giving expert advice on gardening problems, so listeners can get a radio diagnosis and then put the Lazy Gardener’s advice into practice.